MH370: Tending to the distraught

MH370: Tending to the distraught
A Tzu Chi volunteer lending a listening ear to a Chinese family of an MH370 passenger in Beijing.

A day after MH370 went missing, a young man in Beijing who had family on board was so distraught that he took off his T-shirt and started banging his head hard against the wall of the hotel where they were staying.

People rushed to him and quickly pulled him away before he could hurt himself badly.

"After that, the young man calmed down and we gave him some water. Then we kept him company and watched over him," says Lee Mun Keat from the Taiwan Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation Malaysia, who led a team of caregivers to Beijing to help affected families cope with the shock, uncertainty and trauma of having their loved ones go missing.

Since 2007, MAS has had an MOU with Tzu Chi in Malaysia to provide Mandarin-English translation and caregiving services for their Chinese speaking passengers as and when such a need arises. Tzu Chi provides the service for free as part of their social duty.

And twice a year, MAS organises training programmes for Tzu Chi to help prepare them to deal with emergencies, including disasters.

Speakers and survivors - among them was one from the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York - are brought in from overseas to share their experiences and enable caregivers to learn what to say and do when providing care for survivors and affected family members.

On March 8, when flight MH370 from KL to Beijing disappeared, Lee received a call from MAS at 8am, telling him that Tzu Chi's services were needed in Beijing. By noon, Lee and his team of 15 were at KLIA ready to fly out (though it took a few more hours to get their visas organised and for their flight to take off).

A second batch of 20 volunteers went later, followed by a third batch and then another five. They were also helped by about 60 Tzu Chi volunteers from Beijing.

The Tzu Chi volunteers are easy to identify from their uniform of dark blue T-shirts and white trousers. Some even call them "blue angels" because of their outfit and the nature of their work.

In the case of MH370, Lee says, their task in Beijing was to provide relief to affected families, which they did just by holding or touching the person, listening to him or her, and letting them cry or shout.

"Most of the time we don't say anything. We just listen so that they can de-stress and let it all out. If they cry, we give them a tissue and our shoulder to cry on."

He says some family members were so angry during the first few days that they accused the volunteers of "acting" and just pretending that they cared.

"But day in day out, they see us still there so now they have come to accept what we are doing and how we are helping them.

"The families are really angry with MAS and the Malaysian Government. They are always shouting during the briefings but they are not angry with us, the volunteers."

Two-thirds of the 239 passengers on MH370 are Chinese nationals.

The MAS staff in Beijing, says Lee, are very scared, shocked and under intense pressure from the insults and anger being hurled at them by the Chinese families.

"That's where we try to be the balance and the go-between. We ask the next of kin what they need and refer these back to MAS. So far, MAS has granted whatever they have asked for."

When Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak announced Monday night that flight MH370 had ended in the southern Indian Ocean, chaos broke out among family members who could not handle the news.

Lee says the volunteers and MAS staff were at their hotel, which was an hour's drive away from the Metropark Lido Hotel where the Chinese families stayed, when they heard the PM's announcement.

They rushed to the Metropark Lido to be with the family members but they could not get in, he says.

"We were told to stay in the bus and then to go back to our hotel because the situation there was too tense. There were police cars and media all around. Those who tried to get in also had to leave."

Lee says they were advised to stay put in their hotel the next day and were only allowed to return to the Lido Hotel the following day.

By then, things had cooled down and the Tzu Chi volunteers were able to care for the families again.

He says some of the MAS staff in Beijing are so stressed out that some need acupuncture to de-stress.

As for the Tzu Chi volunteers, they have their own coping mechanism, he says.

"One of our fundamental philosophies is that suffering is common and a natural thing and part and parcel of life. So when we listen to the families' grief and pain, we know how to balance our stress and de-stress."

Generally, every night after returning to the hotel, the volunteers gather together and share their experiences.

After spending almost three weeks in Beijing, Lee is back in KL. He is now preparing 100 or so Tzu Chi volunteers to be ready to go to Perth if they are required.

He describes the Beijing experience as "quite tiring".

"Day after day, hour by hour, the family members are always scolding MAS and the Malaysian Government. They are always shouting and asking the same questions and making the same scolding arguments."

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